Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3

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TEACHING SHEELA

by Tom and Sherry Bushnell

     Editor's Note: Tom and Sherry Bushnell are editor's of the NATional cHallenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (NATHHAN) quarterly publication, NATHHAN NEWS. A description of NATHHAN and its goals is given at the end of the article under the resource list provided by Tom and Sherry.

     Carefree and bright was an apt description of Sheela's face this Sunday morning in the car. The window was open and she was lifting her face and hands to "catch the wind" as it blew into her face as we drove down the road. I was struck with the difference four years had made on her little life. In my wildest dreams I had never imagined life with Sheela would be so sweet, so fun, so full of life!

     Sheela was born with anophthalmia and is blind. She was born in Madras, India, and she came home when she was 21 months old. She had kirwashkior (protein deficiency), autistic tendencies, and was basically unresponsive to stimuli. She had no reason to lift her head and her favorite way of sitting was close to the ground in a fetal position. She was not what we had expected. We had hoped for a sweet, charming little girl desperately wanting a mommy. Instead we got an angry little imp with feeding problems, full of hate-especially for her new mom-and seemingly void of any wish to be loved!

     The first two years were very difficult. She manipulated us. She pitted mom against dad. She reached out to strangers for affection and bit and scratched us. Slowly, through consistent love and discipline Sheela found security and a family who would always love her, no matter how unlovely she behaved. We are not saying Sheela is now perfect, but she is very normal!

     When Sheela was three-and-a-half, we looked for services through the public school system. We had an initial interview with the teachers, therapists, and other professionals. They felt they could offer Sheela a great program. But it was not what I had imagined for her. We had worked hard to help Sheela be a normal little girl. They did not understand. What we felt Sheela was capable of, and what they were prepared to give her, were very far apart. We wanted to start pre-Braille immediately; they didn't start this until age eight. We wanted cane travel immediately; they wouldn't start till age ten. And we wanted a regular preschool environment. We treat Sheela like a normal little girl (who happens to be blind), and we expect everyone else to do this too!

     We decided to homeschool Sheela after talking with other parents who were home-educating their special needs children. Sheela is now five-and-a-half years old. To give you an idea of how home schooling is going for us, here is a glimpse into our family journal.

     SEPTEMBER, 1993: Sheela and I made bread this morning. I tried hard to understand her excited chattering. What I got was "Mommy, make bread from flowers from the garbage!" "What?!" As we worked together I finally pieced together what she was saying. Flowers was flour that we keep in a large plastic bin, similar in size and shape to the garbage can! I was so excited to be able to communicate with her, to finally reason and question her. Understanding each other's thoughts is such a thrill! Sheela made her little loaf and placed it next to mine. She was covered head to toe with flowers and had a big smile on her face.

     OCTOBER, 1993: After a brisk jump on the trampoline, Sheela came in to play the piano. The rain had chased her inside, and she was grumpy. She pounded out a few tunes, none of which I recognized. "Play something nice on the piano, Sheela," I called from the office. She got down from the piano instead. She sat in the window seat, face pressed to the cool glass listening to the rain come down. "Sheela has to go potty," I heard her say. "Well get down and go!" I urged her. She remained seated. "Go potty, Sheela!" (This time it's a command.) She ambled toward the bathroom, trailing the counter and headed toward the toilet. We had been working on potty training for two years. She was doing great, with occasional lapses and still in diapers at night. It irritated me that she would resist her urge and take the chance that she would have an accident. I think her moodiness may have to do with her new sister's arrival. Sherlynn came home from Pune, India, and suddenly Sheela was dethroned. Now she is just one of the girls instead of the princess, loved and admired by her doting brothers.

     NOVEMBER, 1993: We started the Readiness to Read Program. Our first step has been symbol recognition, which she seems to learn readily. Circles, squares, and triangles made of cardboard are easy for her to sort and stack. Tracking and using push pins in her corkboard seem to be a little harder. Her finger strength is weak. To help overcome that, I am giving her peanuts in the shell to open and eat. She likes that! We are working on pouring beans. I use a cookie sheet and some of the bowls and measuring scoops she uses in the kitchen. We advanced from dried beans to popcorn then to rice. Now she is pouring water with little spilling!

     DECEMBER, 1993: This is the month of wonderful smells. I was inspired one afternoon to see just how many smells Sheela really knew by heart. I was amazed. We spent the rest of the afternoon till dinner opening spice jars and talking about sweet, spicy, pungent, and yummy scents. She now knows all of the cooking spices by heart. Later that week we moved on to cleaners, soaps, and other food items. Closing our eyes and sniffing the air we can all identify smells we probably would never have noticed if Sheela hadn't come into our world.

     JANUARY, 1994: Sheela's not fond of snow. She thought it sounded so fun. All the other children were wildly excited today as we watched the huge flakes drift down. Sheela came in from outside with tears in her eyes. "Sheela likes the snows," she sobbed, "but it's too cold!" I felt for her in her disappointment. I guess most of snow's excitement is visual. No sound appeal, no fun texture, just cold. Her mittened hand was curled around her cane, frozen with the wet snow in globs. Cane travel in snow isn't easy. The cane keeps getting stuck in the drifts. It makes a funny "smuntch" sound when it hits the covered ground, and it gets in the way when snow men are being built.

     FEBRUARY, 1994: Sheela's finger strength is visibly better. She can find the beginning of the line, push a pin in, track to the end and place another pin. This is progress. She can sing the ABC's with relish and spell words, but I'm afraid she is just copying the older boys. Some day soon she'll understand. Her personal pronouns are still mixed up. She refers to herself as "Sheela" and doesn't use I or me unless prompted to. This is difficult to explain to her. It even sounds confusing when I try to tell her the right way to say things. When shopping we are insisting Sheela use her cane and follow us. No more hanging onto the cart. She was hesitant at first, but with all the ruckus we make as a family going down the aisle, she can't help finding us. Her trouble starts when something interests her and she gets sidetracked-those oranges sure smell good; mmmm-the self-serve coffee bean section. I'll have to admit, the smell of fresh-ground coffee beans is delicious.

     MARCH, 1994: After much astonishment, I came to the realization that Sheela is capable of doing the dishes and putting away her clothes. Josh, her older brother, was employing her services one evening as he had dish duty. She rinsed the dishes for him, only putting a few of the dishes right-side-up full of water. After a little more one-on-one she had the hang of it. She likes to wear my rubber gloves because there are "ickies" in the wash water. I can sympathize! Learning to put her clothes away was a little more complicated. Daddy finally found a system. We put her clothes on the bottom stair and she sorts and puts them away in the right drawer. At first she stuffed the clothes all in one drawer. It took three weeks of coaching before it finally dawned on her that each thing had a special place in the dresser. The socks, shoes, and tights in the top drawer; pants, shirts, and sweaters in another; and pajamas in the last. Now she does it right every time. She is now potty-trained day and night!

     JUNE, 1994: Our home school vacation/extended field-trip to the ocean was a blast. The weather was cool and misty. We played in the sand with toys and listened to the waves roar. What I think Sheela liked best was the fact that she could run and run without bumping into anything. She would start at a slow tentative jog then speed up. With a giant grin on her face she would run into the salty spray, twirl in circles, laugh, and finally land in an out-of-breath heap at our feet. "Sheela's running, Mom!" It was so important to her. I had no idea she even wanted to.

     JULY, 1994: Sheela's used Perkins Brailler arrived. She spent several days making different combinations of bumps and lines to feel. She can read A, B, and C so far. At last I really think it is dawning on her that the song ABCD is more that just a funny rhyme. Sheela's social skills are improving. She can now answer questions such as "How old are you?," "What is your name?," and "What did you have for dinner?" No longer does she jump up in strangers' laps and be too familiar. She has acquired a sense of self-worth and love for her family.

     These are some resources that we are using for teaching Sheela at home:
     1. Are You Blind?, by Lili Nielsen. Blind Children's Fund, Sherry Raynor, 2875 Northwind Drive, Suite 211, East Lansing, Michigan 48823. (517) 333-1725.
     2. Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students, by Doris M. Willoughby and Sharon L.M. Duffy. National Federation of the Blind, Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. (410) 659-9314. (Call after 12:30 p.m.)
     3. Mangold Basic Reading Readiness Program, by Sally Mangold. Exceptional Teaching Aids, 20102 Woodbine Avenue, Castro Valley, California 94546. 1 (800) 549-6999.
     4. I Can Read Readiness Course. Eyes of Faith Ministries, P.O. Box 940106, Plano, Texas 75094-0106.
     5. Straight Talk. A Parents' Guide to Childhood Mispronunciations, by Marisa Lapish. 5301 West Loveland Road, Madison, Ohio 44057. (216) 298-1336.
     6. A multitude of household objects; a trampoline, a piano, and lots of animals.
     7. NATHHAN. NATional cHallenged Homeschoolers Associated Network. A Christian, non-profit organization for families home-educating their special needs children. Among the 2,000 families in the organization there are several hundred families teaching their blind or visually impaired child at home who are eager to share resources and encouragement with others doing likewise. NATHHAN, 5383 Alpine Road S.E., Olalla, Washington 98359. (206) 857-4257.

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